It’s strange that when Christmas celebrations took root in America, Boxing Day never gained a foothold.
Growing up in Britain, it was my favorite day of the year. You know how people say they wish they had a day off to recover from the holidays? Well, Boxing Day is just that. It's celebrated on December 26th, the day after Christmas, when the endless preparations and behavioral expectations are over. There are really no set rules; the agenda might include eating leftovers, taking ‘boxes’ (or presents, often food and drink) to friends and family, lying around watching old movies and European-style football (insert your sport of choice), or heading to the pub.
So what exactly happened to Boxing Day here in the US? The short story is that it never made it across the pond. When American colonists departed England, they left Christmas behind. As strict Puritans, they believed that "Those for whom all days are holy can have no holiday," and that Christmas revelry was sacrilegious with those caught celebrating risking punishment. This ban lasted until the 1680s (much longer for strictly Puritan Colonies), but as contempt for the holiday began to ebb, some of the English customs found their way back into homes. Traditions like caroling, holly, ivy and mistletoe, and Christmas dinner were warmly embraced, while other rituals never managed to catch on.
There are plausible explanations for some holiday customs remaining firmly on British soil. Having dispatched with the monarchy in 1776, it’s not a complete surprise that Americans don’t watch the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day. And while no British Christmas is complete without pudding and mince pies, the pouring of brandy on everything edible, Christmas crackers, or a night at the 'panto' (aka the Pantomime), it’s safe to say these things aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.
But it’s downright puzzling that America has never taken a shine to Boxing Day.
Its origins depend on who you talk to. But historically, Boxing Day was always a day to give back or to help those less fortunate.
Some say it started with the Romans; in Pompeii where earthenware boxes with slots for coins in the top have been unearthed. They were believed to be used to collect money at athletic events, but English church clerics later adopted them to collect charitable donations (or alms) on Christmas Day, which would then be dispersed to the needy the following day.
Going back to the 17th century, “Christmas boxes” with bonuses, food, or gifts were given by employers to tradesmen and servants on the day after Christmas. (Presumably their services would be required on Christmas Day).
In many countries, including those in Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and in Ireland and Wales, December 26th is known as The Feast of Stephen, or St. Stephen’s Day, honoring the first Christian martyr. If you’re familiar with the Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas", you might recognize the story told about the 10th century Bohemian King who “on the Feast of Stephen,” while out surveying his land, comes upon a poor man gathering wood in a blizzard. The King and his page gather food, wine and logs, which they deliver to the impoverished worker.
St. Stephen is the patron saint of horses which is why horse racing, fox hunting and other horse-related activities are popular pastimes on December 26th. The Irish have a custom called Hunting the Wren, and Australians traditionally watch cricket or the big Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race. And in recent history, especially in Canada and the UK, Boxing Day has become a big day for shopping.
Perhaps it’s because the origins of the holiday are a bit vague and the customs associated with Boxing Day are so varied. For whatever reason, Americans have decided that Christmas Day is good enough and most head back to work the next day.
But if you’re lucky enough to have the day off and want to celebrate Boxing Day, Boston has some very British and delicious places that are not only open, but would love for you to help them celebrate.
Mince pies, mulled wine and music? The Haven has got it all. Owner Jason Waddleton hails from Stonehaven, a town in Aberdeenshire Scotland (also the restaurant’s namesake), and after working at Matt Murphy’s in Brookline for 10 years, he decided to follow his dream and open the all-Scottish restaurant and bar.
We’re not kidding when we say this is the real thing. At The Haven you can get a real Scotch breakfast complete with black pudding, smoked bacon, eggs, sausage, baked beans, tattie scones and grilled pineapple.
For a real taste of the old country, try the Haven Lamb Haggis served with roasted potatoes, turnips, whisky sauce and a Drambuie butter. Or try the house-made White Pudding with chicken sausage, braised kale, acorn and spaghetti squash, and mashed potato. There’s also the Fish Supper with hand cut chips and minted mushy peas, and appetizers like Scotch Deviled Eggs, Haggis and Neeps, or Cullen Skink, a creamy smoked fish, potato and leek soup.
The lunch and dinner menus are perfect for winter, including authentic fare like seared Scottish salmon with pesto bashed tatties and Shepard’s Pie. And the Scotch and Stovies supper-Stovies being a stew with potatoes onions and roast meat-is the ultimate comfort food and a Boxing Day special.
Single malt and Stovies are only $16 after 9pm, and you'll be sure to find the infamous Scottish deep fried Mars bar on the loaded dessert menu. The Haven is also the perfect place to sample some of the best single-malt in the city! We recommend trying the Sherlock Holmes - that's a souped up Hot Toddy to you and me! They use Laphroaig single malt to supercharge this epic drink.
And you can keep the holidays alive and watch English soccer at the bar. Game times are at noon and 3pm, and we encourage you to stay for the mince pies and the Hootenanny, an open mic sing along afterwords. Anyone can sign up for it!
2 Perkins St., Jamaica Plain, 617-524-2836, thehavenjp.com
Cornish Pasty Co
If you think of pies as dessert only, then allow us to change your world! A Cornish Pasty, traditionally an English meat pie originating from ‘Cornish Mining Pies’, is designed to be hand-held. Warm and filling, they were ideal for tin miners in the Southwest of England who could hold the pasty by its rope-like crust. After eating them, the crust would be discarded which prevented ingestion of the arsenic-laden dust that likely covered their hands.
Cornwall native Dean Thomas started the Cornish Pasty Co, a family owned chain, in Tempe, Arizona in 2005. Lucky for us, two of his employees, Michael Blunden and Branden Volkenant, have now opened shop in the Back Bay. And their pies are everything you could want from British comfort food.
The variety feels endless with 30 or so choices on the menu. For a traditional experience try The Oggie, a combination of steak and potatoes, served with red wine gravy and ketchup. Another long-established pie is The Porkie with slow-roasted pork, sage, apples, onions and potatoes. There’s also a Lamb and Mint, a Bangers and Mash, and Shephard’s Pie and Cottage Pie pasties; to name a few. The Cornish Pasty Co also offers vegetarian and vegan options like the Vegan Vindaloo or the Spicy Asiago Chicken, a spicy vegetarian chicken pie with roasted corn and black beans, pico de gallo and chilies.
They even have an English Breakfast pasty made with bacon, a soft poached egg, potato, roasted tomato, mushroom, sausage and baked beans, served with a side of HP Sauce.
At Cornish Pasty Co, everything is scratch-made. From the pastries to soups like cream of leek with potato and stilton cheese, and authentically British sides and appetizers like the chicken liver paté, mushy peas and the oven chips (these, we concede aren’t fried but they’re close to the real thing, and a lot healthier!)
And no true Anglophile would be disappointed by the dessert menu. The Sticky Toffee Pudding is made with real British treacle (or molasses), and the Chocolate Bread & Butter Pudding comes in a rich chocolate brandy sauce. Cornish Pastry Co also serves Banoffee Pie, an English dessert pie made from bananas, cream and toffee, served hot with crème anglaise or ice cream.
The small comfortable setting, with a wooden interior built from scratch, gives the space a cozy feel. At the bar they serve cocktails and draft beers, like Fuller's London Porter. And best of all, they offer half pints, the sign of a true British pub! But if you're in a rush, Cornish Pasty Co has no problem prepping your food to go. Pasties can be partially baked if you want to have them for dinner a home.
51 Mass Ave., Boston, 857-250-4497, cornishpastycoboston.com
Elephant & Castle
If you happen to be up early on Boxing Day, do we have the perfect spot for you! Starting at 6:30am, Elephant & Castle will be serving their full on classic English-style breakfast complete with three eggs, house-made British bangers, bacon, baked beans, grilled tomato and mushrooms, toast and potatoes.
Named after a London tube station, Elephant & Castle is located in the heart of downtown, just down the road from the State House in the Financial District. Billy Trott, Assistant General Manager of the Boston branch, calls the restaurant and pub 'Brit-ish.' “They serve food with a British flair,” he says. "There’s a solid showing of traditional British menu options, but for those perhaps not in an adventurous mood, they offer American comfort food as well.” So along with such delicacies as Steak & Mushroom Pie, Bangers & Mash, Ale & Onion soup, and Shepherd’s Pie, you can also find options like fish tacos, Reuben sandwiches and an extensive selections of burgers. (Billy highly recommends the Bacon & Bleu Cheese.)
If you’re ready to get your Brit on, the malt vinegar on every table is a welcoming sight. And the Fish & Chips will satisfy any Anglo food craving. And as if it wasn't delicious enough, Elephant & Castle's Stuffed Yorkshire Pudding is packed with tender roast beef and rich beef gravy, and is served with mashed potatoes, seasonal vegetables and a side of horseradish aioli.
Elephant & Castle also has Canadian roots, and proudly serves poutine. We recommend you try ‘The Works’ with bacon, tomato, sour cream and green onions. Or 'Butter Chicken’ which is a poutine with simmered chicken in a curried tomato cream sauce, cheese curd, cilantro and spiced yogurt. As for dessert, the apple pie is delicious, but be sure to try the Highland Bread Pudding or the Baileys Cheesecake for a taste of the Old Country.
Elephant & Castle is a cozy venue with low lighting, brick walls, and dark wood. But it can seat up to 125 people, so getting a table is not a battle. They'll be welcoming Boxing Day customers until 11pm.
161 Devonshire St., Boston, 617-350-9977, elephantcastle.com